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At Grenfell Tower, 24 stories of non-compliance

Bill Coffin | June 19, 2017

Compliance saves lives. If you ever doubt it, just consider the Grenfell Tower fire, a horrific disaster that occurred in London on June 14. The tower is one of England’s council-owned apartment blocks—low-income, public housing—located in North Kensington, the wealthiest section of the most expensive city in Europe. The tower housed as many as 600 people in 120 apartments. It was built in 1974 and recently underwent a nearly $11 million refurbishment, which included installing new aluminum composite cladding on the outside of the building to improve its appearance. The cladding essentially consists of thin plates of aluminum composite that sandwich a layer of flammable polyethylene in between. UK Building Regulations forbid the use of such cladding in buildings over 18 m in height, yet there it was, installed on Grenfell Tower, which stood 67m tall; nearly four times the legal limit.

Around 1 am June 14, a fire broke out in the tower. One account said a tenant reported an exploding refrigerator, but at the time of this writing, the cause remains unknown. What is known is that the fire raced across the exterior of the building, leaping floors within minutes, and very shortly, the entire building was engulfed in flame. At least 79 people are confirmed or presumed dead. At least 50 are injured. Hundreds more are homeless. But the number of dead is expected to rise, with the grisly reality that many of those lost might have been burned so badly in the conflagration that identifying them at all may be next to impossible.

The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) manages the building on behalf of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns it. KCTMO manages some 10,000 properties on behalf of the borough, and has been roundly criticized over the years for neglectful and shoddy treatment of the building, resulting in the installation of flammable materials throughout the building, the removal of firestops, and the lack of even a centralized sprinkler system—something that any fire expert can attest is the best bet for stopping a major apartment fire once the flames have reached a common area. Sprinklers were considered by the KCTMO but ultimately turned down as part of the building’s renovation. At £138,000 (U.S. $174,173), the sprinklers were seen as too costly and their installation would be too disruptive to the people living in the tower. The Grenfell tenants who survived the blaze probably have a different view of things, especially now that they have nowhere to lay their head at night.

There appears to be a massive and long-standing pattern of non-compliance with Grenfell Tower with the most elementary rules and regulations for building safety and fire safety. One is reminded of the Lakanal House fire in 2009, when another block of public housing suffered a similar blaze that killed six. Like Grenfell Tower, Lakanal lacked basic sprinkler protection, decent maintenance or safe living conditions. In that case, the Council of Camberwall in southeast London was considered for possible corporate manslaughter charges, but fined £570 million instead. One imagines that, the penalties for Grenfell Tower will be a multiple of that, if not significant jail time, for members of the KCTMO and the tower’s various renovation contractors. At least one British fire expert described Grenfell Tower as a disaster waiting to happen, but one never likely to be addressed unless spurred by a major disaster. But the most horrifying detail of all here is that there are dozens more towers just like Grenfell all over Britain in similar states of decay and neglect, in violation of the law, and placing lives unnecessarily at risk. Is compliance worthwhile? In this case, people are literally betting their lives on it.